With the celebration of the World Soundtrack Awards 2016 held in Ghent at the end of last year, SoundTrackFest had the opportunity to speak with Jeff Beal, who kindly took some time to answer a few questions from Gorka Oteiza, in an interview that we rescue now.
Jeff Beal has recently completed composing and performing live, his music for the documentary “BOSTON” (read news), and this week he’s embarking in a “House of Cards – In Concert” tour in Europe (read news), that will extend during the months of April and May, prior to the premiere of Season 5 of “House of Cards” the 30th of May in Netflix.
First of all, Jeff thank you very much for taking some time to talk with SoundTrackFest.
You play many musical instruments, but the trumpet is clearly your main instrument and you have a very important musical Jazz background, how did you start getting into music and when and how did you decide to go into film music?
I think every young artist has a few moments in their live when they discover something that hooks them and stays with them the rest of their lives, and I had two of those sort of epiphanies as a young musician. The first one was playing trumpet and improvising, when I sensed that world of imagination and experimentation I could express as an improviser, and I was hooked on this world. I realized there was something that I could get out in a spontaneous form, improvising, that was very unique. And then the other experience I had was playing trumpet again, but this time in a youth orchestra, a really good youth orchestra. We were playing the music of Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring, an amazing piece of music, and there’s no better place to hear an orchestra than sitting right in the middle of it.
While I was sitting in the middle of this masterpiece of orchestration and drama, it totally intrigued me. I knew I wanted to be a composer, I wanted to write this kind of music, I wanted to write for an orchestra. But also the thing that really impressed me was about music telling a story; there was drama in the music which spoke to me. The power of music to be a storytelling device was incredibly powerful, and it really got me. Although the fact you’re focused on film music outside of the film when you’re in the concert hall, I believed all my esthetic, my sense of music, there’s some sort of story in it. Could be pure concert where you don’t spell out with narratives, but music that has some sort of narrative is really powerful. So I think those first things were really important in what later became my film career.
In a way, when you’re playing jazz, you’re really composing in real time, so both thing are much linked, aren’t they?
The idea of jazz is so powerful, the idea of improvisation, and playing jazz with a group is a very collective experience. We’re all listening to each other. Being a film composer is very much the same, when I’m writing I’m not just writing in the vacuum, I’m looking at the screen and getting ideas and getting inspiration from the actors and their performances. It’s like playing with a band. When I’m composing, I’m playing with the actors and the director and the writer.
You have many works for TV shows: Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Monk, Rome, Carnivale, House of Cards… You’ve won many Emmys and during the World Soundtrack Awards you’ve won in the category “Television Composer of the Year 2016”. Did you choose to focus your career for TV shows over movies? Did you make that choice willingly?
It kind of chose me (laughs). I love doing films and I’m starting to do more films now, but when I did Pollock, quite a long time ago, I thought it might lead to doing feature films, but instead something else happened. I love the surprises, things you don’t expect, and directly out of Pollock I got my relationship with HBO. They asked me to submit for Carnivale, so I ended doing Carnivale for HBO, and it was a really great home for me. I felt like it was pretty good television and I was leading up to it. I think one of the things that really fit me well in doing television is that you need to be quick, you need to write a lot of music, and being an improviser I write fast, so I’m very prolific and that worked well for me.
I don’t like to spend a lot of time obsessing and judging myself. I like to write something and then it’s done, I put it away, and in TV that’s all you could do, especially on a network show. You don’t have time for more. So I actually liked that, because to me it’s more immediate, instead on working on the same film for six months. In film score, you write and rewrite the same piece of music twenty times and in TV you write twenty times as much music. I’d rather write twenty times more music than rewrite the same piece of music over and all over again.
Let’s go to one of your best known works, winner of several Emmys: House of Cards. It’s been a huge success in Spain, as Spain is into politics.
That’s great to know. I hope I can come with House of Cards Concert there then!
We’d love it! So the series is a reference worldwide as a political thriller. The lines are so diffuse from reality, that sometimes you don’t really know if it’s truth or just fiction. How do you get to that project and how is working with David Fincher, one of the minds behind the project?
I was very lucky, as happens many times in life. When I was doing Rome for HBO, David Fincher liked that music and hired me. He does also a lot of commercial directing and at the time, he was directing a cellphone commercial for the Super Bowl – big American football game, all the big ads go there. So I wrote the score for him and we had a great time collaborating and I really liked it.
Few years later I saw this story that Kevin Spacey and David Fincher were teaming up for House of Cards. After doing Rome, which was a good show but only lasted two seasons, I realized I really liked the world of politics as a framing device for drama. So I just sort of threw myself to David’s feet and I told him I’d love to do House of Cards, and having done Rome I thought I’d do great. He asked me to send some music and I did, and off it went!
The main title of House of Cards is really amazing and has so many layers, so many different sounds and instruments with different meanings. It has to be very difficult to get to that piece, the final one. How was the process? Did you do many versions of it? Did you write the main title first or did you start with the music of the show and then came back to the main title?
A little bit of all of that. Before he started shooting, David asked me to write some demos for him to get the ball rolling. I’d read about four scripts, and so I wrote four sketches, and one of those was really the tune. It never changed, it’s what you hear, but the arrangement was certainly very skeletal, very simple. If you listen to that demo you can see the baseline, the progression, the percussion, and some of the sounds. Everything is there. The other part (*now Jeff sings the high-piched part*), it’s actually another theme; if you listen to the underscores of season one, there’s one theme in there with a piano that is used over the main theme.
David had this idea that if we have the main theme, we needed a big arrangement, because it’s a long main title and you want a main title to be something that holds up well over a repeated listening. He said, “It would be really cool if the arrangement of the main title had this kind of microcosm of the whole score”, so that got me thinking, and I started building little layers of the score, adding another leitmotifs that are part of our world, both in sound and instrumentation, but also in terms of little gestures that would be little musical Easter eggs that audience could find.
And then Season two of House of Cards came and there was a change in the main title. It didn’t sound the same, had a change in the “flavor”. Why was that?
Yes, there was a change! David Fincher felt that second season was darker, like “Godfather II” opposed to “Godfather I” so he wanted a slightly different sound, he wanted some bigger strings in a low register, some choir and also the violins had some change. So we did it that way.
Season Five is coming soon. How is music going to evolve in the next season (no spoilers please)
(Laughs) Don’t worry, no spoilers. I’d have to kill you if I told you (laughs). I had much fun writing the music for season five, because I feel we’re in a great point in the story. The end of season four was a big cliffhanger. I think what’s going to make season five interesting is new chapters for both Frank and Claire, what their world is going to be now.
I think that the whole show is like a big pot put to boil and you turn the heat on and slowly slowly it warms-up, and now it’s boiling. But it’s not always hot, musically speaking, sometimes it’s cool, sometimes is strange, but you sense the heat because really it’s the operatic scale to the way the show is. So there’s the sense that you have all this history of all the stuff that has happened now and that informs where you are.
You can relate to many of the situations that go on in the show, and can help you to decide how would you face them if they happened to you in real life. And I think that is one the points that makes this show unique, because even this Machiavellian dark fun and almost Greek drama, also the writers find their way to have humanity in it, and that’s what I love about it. They’re three dimensional characters, they’re not just simple cartoons, and we don’t mock them with our music, we try to stand them and be honest to their journey.
Last summer a compilation CD was released with your music for the Jesse Stone movies. You’ve worked in nine movies. How was the preparation of the CD and how is the world of Jesse Stone musically speaking? Because many years have passed form the first movie to the last one. Did you keep evolving the music with the character?
I’m so proud of those movies and now it’s really nice because many of them are “living” in Netflix. The musical world is very much like the House of Cards journey, because it’s really about the central character played by Tom Selleck.
The movies are linear, each movie is a self-contained story with a murder mystery or crime story, but the real story is not the crime, is this guy, his evolution, where he goes and his life and the journey he takes. So in a way, the music is fun.
It’s very popular in Germany; I remember last year I was in Halle Film Music Awards giving a seminar and somebody screamed out from the back of the room “you’re showing Pollock and House of Cards but you’re not showing your best work: Jesse Stone” (laughs). I encourage people to find it and watch it and listen to the music. Film composers we’re always at the mercy of the filmmakers, and the director of these movies Robert Harmon is brilliant, he’s very musical, and there’s a wonderful space in that show for the music. The fun thing about doing that score it’s been it’s not conventional crime thriller music, it’s more about character, about the soul of this guy.
Are any more movies of the Jesse Stone series coming?
I think there’s one more movie coming. Hopefully so!
That is fantastic. We have run out of time, but I am sure we’ll have more opportunities to continue talking about your great music in SoundTrackFest.
I would love to!